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Answering parents' MySpace questions

While some hip parents are creating their own MySpace pages to keep up with their kids, many parents don't grasp the social-networking site.

While some parents are creating their own MySpace pages to keep up with their kids, many don't understand the social-networking site and its allure for adolescents.

Stories such as today's "Mom indicted in MySpace suicide case" and others that tie the site to sexual predators, cyberbullying and teen suicide can make this unfamiliar youth hangout all the more frightening for parents. Fortunately, psychologists say, most children don’t encounter trouble on social-networking sites. Many kids, they say, have beneficial experiences on MySpace, which can actually help children through the awkward stage that is adolescence.

That’s what I reported in a recent story, “MySpace can help bring shy kids out of their shells.” Being socially challenged can make an adolescent feel even more alien, but finding accepting pals can come easier online. Virtual relationships, in turn, can boost kids’ confidence and social lives, making life a little bit better in the real world.

The story generated about 70 e-mails from readers, ranging from parents who don’t sweat MySpace to those who swear it off. But I mainly heard from parents who are unsure about how to handle MySpace with their kids. Should they cybersnoop on their children? Should they forbid older “friends”? Should they ban MySpace altogether?

I took their questions to three experts for parental guidance. Larry D. Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, recently authored a parenting book, "Me, MySpace and I," on the topic. Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, wrote "You and Your Adolescent." C.J. Pascoe, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, researches how new media has become central to teen life.

The key, they say, to successfully parenting a MySpacer seems to involve striking a balance. Parents should talk to their children about safety, and also check their children's profile while sitting with them at the computer. But they should  also grant young adults the freedom needed to develop into individuals.

Experts warn that taking MySpace away just makes the site all the more seductive for today's tech-savvy kids, who will find a workaround. Also, cyberspying driven by fear of MySpace, rather than a child's bad behavior, can break the trust between a parent and child and create a rift in their relationship.

Here's what the experts said to some of the questions that were submitted:

Forbid older ‘friends’?
“My older teens, I allowed them to go online and use their real photographs because back then it seemed like not that many people were online, so it didn’t matter. With my younger teens, I set up new rules. They could go online, but no real names ever, no photos, no older 'friends,' etc. I don't check and I hope it's OK, but my little one already met an older friend age 23; she's 13 and we are dealing with that. So obviously, it's not working.” — Susan, Fla.

Rosen: At this point, it’s time for a family meeting. I bet one of the things this mother hasn’t done is told the kid: "I have complete access to what you're doing. I can walk by the computer and ask what you're doing. If I discover you are showing me only part of what you are doing, here are the consequences." Consequences should start out small and build. They should be spelled out. The way you set consequences is by what’s really important to this person. Obviously the important thing to this person is being online: Lose half an hour, lose two hours. Also, where is the computer? It’s not a right to have a computer in the kid's room; it’s a privilege.

Pascoe: I would say, "I need to meet this person before you meet them offline." Unless you’ve seen a problem arise already, setting a rule of you can’t talk to a person of X age won't help if the child hasn't done anything wrong yet. Nothing bad might come of a virtual relationship. I see kids on role-playing sites or Harry Potter sites having inter-generational, productive friendships.

How to keep real-life friends?
"What if your child likes his MySpace, or in my kid's case, YouTube, persona so much better that he lets go of past friends at school? He has shrunk his life down to just YouTube because it's easier. How can this be healthy?" — Susin C., Framingham, MA

Rosen: Adolescent development requires real-life contact.That’s tough if the kid has given up all his offline friends. It seems like his behavior has reached the stage of an addiction. That’s really important for the parent to understand, why is my kid doing this? When MySpace use becomes addictive, you have to apply different rules. You can’t make somebody go cold turkey just like you can’t take cigarettes away from a nicotine addict. Addicts want to be rewarded with what they’re addicted to. Practicing the addiction in a public place tends to reduce the behavior. Much of addictive behaviors are done behind closed doors. It’s addictive because it’s done privately and exciting. And in public, it loses its allure.

Steinberg: It’s not as healthy for your social network to be an electronic one than a real one. But for a kid who doesn’t have any friends at all, YouTube offers some social contact rather than none. If your child doesn’t have any friends in the world other than those he met on the Internet, I would try to figure out why that is. Research says is that it's important for kids to have at least one good friend. If your child has one good friend in the real world and spends a lot of time on the Internet, I wouldn’t be concerned. One close friend is more important than being popular for mental health.

Cybersnoop on children?
"I am on [my daughter's] friends' list so I can read her bulletins, I also monitor who she's talking to and find out what is happening in her world. Sometimes this is the only way of knowing about what's going on with her because she is more likely to share with her friends and publish to the world than share with her parents. Is this normal? I just don't want to rely on MySpace to learn about what she is doing and problems she is facing. When should I step in and get her to talk to me instead — or should I?" — Anonymous

Steinberg:During early adolescence, it is perfectly normal for kids to want privacy as part of the process of growing up. That’s why they start closing their bedroom doors. Privacy is important because your child is struggling to develop an identity that is separate from you. Parents who don’t allow privacy, their kids are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. So a parent needs to find the right balance of being involved and being intrusive.

Pascoe: Kids do need their privacy, but they have to earn it. Spying on them without their knowledge is not the way to do it. It’s in general a bad idea. It’s not going to bring you closer. The trust and conversations have to start offline. You have to actually listen to your child.

Grant kids some privacy?
"I have a 12-year-old daughter who logs on daily. I asked her for her password, and she said she didn't want to give it to me. She is basically a very trustworthy, good girl, so I decided to respect her privacy. I told her she needed to be prepared for random audits, where I would have her log in, and I would check her comments, messages, and some of her friends' profiles. So far I have performed three or four audits. She has been very willing to log in whenever I ask, and I've never found anything questionable. Should I be concerned that she doesn't want to give me her password, or this just a normal desire for some privacy?" — Anonymous

Rosen: Developmentally, younger kids are not ready to handle a variety of issues they could encounter on MySpace. The brain of a kid is different than that of an older adolescent. The part of the brain that is primarily for making decisions and multitasking doesn’t completely develop until the late teens or early 20s. Being on MySpace, kids are always making decisions. A small amount of MySpacers are approached sexually or experience cyberbullying. All the research shows, when faced with somebody coming onto them, 95 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds do handle it well. But when something does happen, the younger the kid, the less adept they are at handling it. You have to do more monitoring and pro-active parenting than with older kids.

Pascoe: The password thing is such a hard one. Different rules may be appropriate for different ages. It might be more appropriate to watch a 12-year-old. If she proves herself responsible, she doesn’t have to share her password anymore. You can’t get their password and just go on without their knowledge. You have to have a conversation as a family. You have to promise not to rat out their friends to their friends' parents. Your child can’t get in trouble for what their friends say. That’s really humiliating for a child to be the kid whose parents ratted out everybody.

Friends with bad online behavior?
"My daughter has friends on her MySpace that have some inappropriate stuff on their own pages. I did request her to remove one of them. Just about all of her friend's pages are fine.  Should I tell her to remove the ones I don't approve of, or should I just talk to her about what is inappropriate?" — Erin Sweet, R.I.

Pascoe: The mom shouldn’t have her daughter remove her friend. That can cause a huge amount of embarrassment for someone. You can’t hold your child responsible for what their friends do. Talk to them about why that content might be inappropriate, why she might be doing that and why your daughter is making good decisions for not doing that.

Rosen: If you tell your kid to remove a friend, they’ll find a way to get that friend back. Talk to your kid about what worries you. You might find out that your kid is just as appalled. Maybe your kid is getting something positive from that kid. I applaud this mother for considering the option of talking to her child. Ninety-nine percent of parents would just consider the first choice. If parents remove friends from their kid's MySpace, kids will add them on Facebook. You can’t stop kids technologically, but you can parentally.

Balance school and MySpace?
"My son has been failing in school and I think it's because he's been spending too much time on MySpace. I've tried taking away his computer, but he still manages to get online! How can I prevent him from being distracted from his schoolwork?" — Julie, New York City

Rosen: Using the computer should be contingent on his homework being done. If he completes an hour of homework, he gets X amount of time on the computer. If he’s getting on the computer anyway, it’s incumbent on the parent that he can only get on through the parent’s access code. This is a tough one, because kids sneak around. You need to make sure he understands if you find out he gets on, he’s going to lose some of that time. Kids are trying to tell us something, MySpace is really important to me. Parents who just yank stuff away, kids are going to hate them. Time on the computer has to be monitored and with a clock. The computer has to be shut down; if not, here are consequences. Don’t make the consequences yourself. Negotiate. Let them win a little.

Steinberg: Put time limits on it. The same way you would respond to TV, video games or butterfly collecting. School is the most important thing for kids at that age. Parents are not powerless to how kids spend their time. It’s more effective to agree to a certain hours a day. You have to get your homework done first;. you have to maintain good grades.

Ban MySpace?
“My son has not once, but on two different occasions, not only met his girlfriend online but has also traveled to see them. The first one was OK. About three months ago, he met this girl that stood for everything he had been taught to stand against. He is 18 so I was limited in what I could do. He bought a bus ticket and traveled to Florida to meet her. Bottom line, he almost went to jail three times in one day because of her. He is now about to come home and my first instinct is to cut all ties to MySpace completely. Do I just take it away from the 18-year-old? I'm not convinced he has learned a lesson from this just yet, so I don't think I can trust him.” — Anonymous, Baton Rouge, La.

Rosen: First of all, do not take Internet access away. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter if they’re 18 or 14. He’ll find a way to get on at a friend's house, a public place, an Internet café. The appropriate thing to do with an 18-year-old who could do whatever he wants is tell him: “You are living in my home, you are living by my rules.” There are different consequences for an 18-year-old than a 14-year-old. It depends on what kind of control you have. If the 18 year old is paying rent, the consequences have to do with money. “I’m going to charge you $500 to stay here, if I see you're doing X, Y and Z, I’ll raise or lower it $100.” Rewarding them for the kind of behavior you want is more likely to work. Couple that with punishment; the two work better than the parts. Create a behavioral contract in writing, a list of how behaviors are rewarded and punished.

Pascoe: The son's problems are pre-existing. Parents can’t fix problems by blaming the Internet. I don’t think forbidding kids from using the technology will, either. She can forbid him from using MySpace, but that’s not going to stop him from seeking out trouble. The son has poor decision-making skills. MySpace allows another arena from which to make poor decisions. They need to get at the heart of the problem.